May 29, 2020

Monday Mets: In Defense Of A Gold Glover

Last week, Mets announcer Keith Hernandez gave an honest, albeit unpopular, opinion that sparked more backlash than conversation. In spite of the criticism he received, he stood by his comments. So what if he was right?

Let me set the scene – in a Braves-Marlins game in Atlanta on Wednesday night, young Marlins starting pitcher, Jose Urena, hit the even younger Braves leadoff hitter, Ronald Acuna Jr., with a fastball. Acuna Jr. had been an on incredible hot streak of late, having hit 8 home runs in the previous 8 games, including 2 home runs on Tuesday night. While the pitch was not aimed at his head, it was obviously thrown with an intent to hit him. While Acuna Jr. didn’t charge the mound, the benches did clear and there was a bit more pushing and shoving than in a standard baseball fracas. 

When the SNY coverage of the Mets game showed the in-game highlights of the HBP and subsequent brawl(ish), Keith Hernandez provided his thoughts: “They’re killing you. You lost three games. He’s hit three home runs. You got to hit him,” Hernandez said. “I’m sorry, people aren’t going to like that. You know, you got to hit him, knock him down. I mean, seriously knock him down if you don’t hit him. You never throw at anybody’s head or neck. You hit him in the back. You hit him in the fanny,” he said.

This was not received well. Fans of all teams, including the Mets, condemned Hernandez’s view. Braves Hall of Famer/Mets nemesis, Chipper Jones, tweeted his disappointment with him. The basic gist was that Hernandez’s thoughts were out of date, and no longer relevant in today’s game.

But what was he really saying? The guy is pretty well known for his honest, blunt, often entertaining, sometimes inappropriate banter. So, it might seem unnecessary to try to interpret such straight talk. However, if you really think about the point Hernandez was trying to make, his words may not seem so outlandish.

First, let’s be clear about what Keith Hernandez was not saying. He was not saying that a player should get hit by a pitch as punishment for being on a hot streak. He was certainly not trying to suggest that a player’s well-being should be put in jeopardy because he’s been doing well. 

What the 5-time All-Star was saying was when a hitter is in the midst of a hot streak, a pitcher needs to back him off the plate, to remove some of his bravado, to reclaim some of the strike zone. 

This is not old school baseball. This isn’t about any of baseball unwritten rules. In fact, the only thing “old” about it is that it was once basic baseball, and now, for some reason, it’s considered controversial. This is a key strategy in the pitcher-batter battle and as is oft-mentioned, the inability for pitchers to throw inside has led to the awfully bloated offensive stats we see in today’s game.

To be fair to Hernandez’s detractors, he did go a bit too far, in my opinion, by saying that a player should actually be hit by a pitch. By most accounts, pitchers throw harder and faster than in decades past, and the risk of injury is too great to condone this action. While a pitcher has the right to throw inside, a hitter should not have to worry about his season/career/non-baseball health whenever stepping to the plate.

Jose Urena was suspended by the MLB for 6 games for hitting Acuna Jr. with the pitch. It means he’ll miss one start. He deserves some consequences for his actions, or at least for his severe lack of control, and that’s what he’ll get. 

Keith Hernandez will not serve any punishment for his comments, despite calls for a suspension by fans and former players. Nor should he. The gamesmanship between a batter and a pitcher is one of the most beautiful things about baseball. Some of baseball’s greatest pitchers were artist-like in their ability to pitch inside. And even they hit a guy or two every now and then. 

Remember, Keith Hernandez was a hitter himself. He enjoyed the rivalry with the player 60 feet and 6 inches away from him. If you watch the Mets broadcasts enough, you’ll hear him talk about pitchers as the enemy, or at least as a separate breed of player whom he doesn’t fully understand. I point this out because it’s important to understand that Keith’s comments come from a love of well-played strategic baseball. Keith Hernandez is not a heartless person, he’s not an crotchety old “back in my day” person, and he’s certainly not a thoughtless person; Keith Hernandez, is a knowledgable baseball fan (who was also a talented hitter and amazing fielder), who studies the game and enjoys when it’s played effectively. Perhaps baseball would be even better if more fans cared about how well it was played the way Keith Hernandez does, even if we don’t agree with all of his opinions.